Now that John McCain and his $20 million in campaign spending have decisively quashed Arizona Republican primary rival and right-wing talk-show radio host J.D. Hayworth, the pundit class is beseeching the 73-year-old senator to return to his maverick persona. Michael Tomasky, editor of the Guardian's political website, expressed the hope that the "establishment will write ... over these next few weeks that, maybe now that McCain has survived Hayworth, he'll join forces with his old pal Lindsey Graham, and the two will become the reasonable conservatives, the people willing to make deals with Barack Obama in a Senate of Marco Rubios and Joe Millers."
The dean of Washington's political press, David Broder, did just that in his Thursday column. "Now that John McCain has taken care of his political business in Arizona," Broder declaimed, "it is time for him to return to Washington and the responsibilities he bears as a leader of the Republican Party and the nation." The idea seems to be that after tacking to the right on issues ranging from immigration to taxes to Guantánamo in order to take care of the bothersome unpleasantness in Arizona, McCain can now drop the wingnut shtick. Like the Grinch, ready to topple Whoville's Christmas presents over the mountaintop ledge -- only to discover that he has a heart after all -- McCain, so the theory goes, will now realize that he does have a liberal, or at least moderate, ticker.
McCain isn't likely to be as bad as he was over the past two years. He will likely be even worse. Far from trying to work with Obama over the next two years, the GOP, headed by Minority (or perhaps Majority?) Leader Mitch McConnell and fortified by a phalanx of newly elected Tea Party-backed representatives, will demonstrate that the previous two years were merely a dress rehearsal for the coming war to destroy Obama's presidency. And McCain won't be going AWOL.
The notion that McCain will repent his bad manners is rooted in two fallacies. The first one is structural. It assumes that the Senate has gone out of whack in the past decade and should, in fact, be a convivial place where the old boys can posture in public and hash out deals over drinks in elegant backrooms.
The nostalgia for those halcyon days has been given a fresh stimulus by George Packer's recent influential New Yorker essay chronicling the demise of senatorial servants devoted to the public weal -- in other words, the era that happened to coincide with mid-20th-century liberal dominance, assisted by the moderate, East Coast Republican establishment. But that establishment, like the moderate John McCain, is as dead as the dodo bird. Ever since Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964, the right has staged its own insurgency inside the GOP itself. The emergence of the Tea Party represents the apotheosis of this development, not its beginning. If a star burns most brightly when it is about to burn out, then the GOP appears to be going supernova. In so doing, it will try to accomplish more than just singeing Obama. It will attempt to engulf his presidency.
The second fallacy is that McCain isn't truly a conservative, but, rather, a genial fellow whose momentary peevishness can be dispelled, perhaps, by a few overtures from Obama. But what if McCain really is a grumpy old man? What if he has steadily been moving toward the right, most conspicuously in foreign policy? And what if, at a purely personal level, he views Obama as a stripling who robbed him of his presidential moment and who, like Neville Chamberlain, must be driven from office by almost any means necessary?